How do I know this? I get to sift through piles of emails from people wanting help and advice after they have had a really unsavory situation thanks to having met the so called ideal godparent on line. I get to see a bit of everything, from those who find exploitative godparents who see their godchildren as meal tickets, to those who get really screwed with poorly done initiations. Overall, the feeling most people manifest is one of hurt; they feel deceived, damaged and abused. I have to say that one of the worse ways in which a human being can be abused is by having someone mess with their faith, with their spiritual being and thus with their development. If that is not akin to spiritual rape, then what is?
Under the premises of availability of quick information on line, some may argue that Santeria should not have any secrets and that initiates must share all of their knowledge without questioning to whom they entrust it and how they disseminate the information. I have gotten belligerent arguments from many on this regard; I make no apologies for being in complete disagreement.
There are a variety of people who support this greed for knowledge. Chief among them are those who simply have no respect for traditions, followed by the bunnies and light new agers who are simple in their Alice in Wonderland approach to spirituality and believe that everything must be placed at their fingertips on a whim. Those are truly scary for they are the ones who see our Orishas as deities they can freely incorporate in their pantheon-du-jour and worship as they would with any other Nordic or elsewhere god or goddess. They lack the basic understanding that the Orishas are not gods, but let me not veer into another subject which merits its own place for discussion. Of course, there are the shysters who have received no initiations and pose as initiates because they read enough to create a façade that is believable. It is precisely because there are power, status and money hungry individuals who are willing to sell anything to feed their pockets and egos that we are where we are, facing the great deterioration of Santeria. Finally, there are also the ones who protect drug lords and are in constant search for more powerful workings to sell to their death-mongers. In summary, there are many reasons and types of people who support for legitimate Santeros to open up their minds, libretas and ilés and share all knowledge freely and without discrimination. I will say it again for the record; I do not support this at all.
That takes me to another issue we are facing as a religious community: lack of discrimination. Yes, the word discrimination has been vilified, but I assure you in this case, it is a blessing to know how to discriminate. To discriminate is not only to make a difference in treatment or favor on a basis other than individual merit, but also to distinguish by discerning or exposing differences. Why is discrimination important? Because it allows responsible Santeros to discern who is ready and appropriate to be admitted into the ranks of the religion. It is partly because many Santeros run initiation mills that we are in the state of decay we are, if this is not corrected, in 20 years we will have a complete meltdown of religious culture and there will be no stopping to the loss of traditions. Mark my words and set the timer.
Of course, the complexity of issues we face in Santeria did not start with the Internet. I am not vilifying this important communication channel. I am not naïve and think that before the Internet there was no information to be found. As an avid reader and book collector, I am well aware of the growing availability of books in print and the desire of publishing houses in the United States and abroad to offer new titles under their ‘new age’ and ‘self-help’ selections, which started to bring about change, flooding the market with poorly researched and mass distributed written books on Santeria. In defense of some publishing houses, I will say that it was not precisely easy to find reputable and open sources to double check the materials presented by some authors who are considered now ‘authorities’ because they were the first to market, not because they were indeed first with correct information to market. These books were done for the satisfaction of those in search of quick knowledge, the arm chair magician who devours books and then sets up shop misrepresenting what little they acquire in their passive reading on the subject.
In summary we have two main issues to tackle as a community if we are to preserve our traditions and continue to have a religion worth practicing for generations to come. First we need to address who comes into our ranks, second we need to continue to instill a sense of responsibility in the dissemination and sharing of knowledge. For both tasks, we need to apply the Socratic maxim “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
We need to examine our religious life both at a personal and community level if we are to survive and have a legacy at all to share, not only for generations to come but for those who are now being shaped and will be in charge of our religious future. I guarantee you, the task of examination is hard, it will be unpleasant and it forces us to look inwards to our own life first, to be blunt about our level of knowledge and religious training. It also makes us take a deep look at our personal shortcomings, our spiritual, moral and ethical deficiencies and merits. In summary, it makes us focus within making us dig deep and then analyze for a reality that for many will not be pretty. As a matter of fact, for the majority of us this reality—if we are sincere and not blinded by ego—should plainly suck, because perfect, we are not.
Is there a future for Santeria? Of course there is! But before we take a deep dive into what this future could be, let us start by taking a look at the two core issues that I have identified as threats undermining the present.
I am fully aware that this is going to create lots of raised eyebrows and heated arguments in many ilés. Change is seldom easy but in this case, we must embrace change in order to clean up our houses and re sow proper grounds with worthy seed. I am no longer Catholic, but I believe the Parable of the Sower found in the Gospel of Mark has a profound parallelism with our current situation. Our community has scattered too many seeds, too fast, without minding the conditions upon which they sow. It is time to stop and be selective of the grounds we sow, of the seeds we plant. Only then we will be able to harvest according to wise spiritual actions.
I started by quoting Socrates and his maxim about the life being not less meaningful but plainly unworthy of living without proper examination. I will however, expand by including three more pieces of uncommon wisdom to form the foundation upon which to re chart a future for Santeria.
Jorge Agustín Nicolás Ruiz de Santayana y Borrás, said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” and so we must at all times be aware of our history and at all cost avoid the mistakes of the past. To achieve this we must understand and honor the sacrifices of the ones who laid the foundations of Santeria in the New World. This takes me to ponder on one third concept, “We stand upon the shoulders of those who came before us,” to those we owe a deep debt not only of gratitude but also of deed. A complimentary thought comes to me from the Akan people: “Se wo were fi na wosankofa a yenkyi,” which translates “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.” It is not wrong to stop, examine, think and re state our course. It is morally wrong, however to knowingly continue to engage in behaviors that although self-aggrandizing will cause the detriment of the religion overall.
When people set themselves up to initiate anyone who comes through their door, this is what happens, we end up with initiation mills. Initiation mills feed pockets, swell heads with godparents who compete to see how many heads they have managed to incorporate in their ranks; undoubtedly initiation mills feed egos. Overall, the results are detrimental because more often than not such godparents leave a scattered trail of poorly raised godchildren and oloshas. These new initiates know no better because their so called elders neglect to do what godparents must do: Teach selflessly.
To avoid initiation mills I simply propose being discriminative, selective. Time is the best ally when a couple is considering a permanent union as godparent and godchild. Time allows us to observe, learn and foster a respectful relationship not only with the elder but also with other members of the household. An ilé is after all a community, if a person cannot function within that parameters of the ilé and get along with the majority of existing members, then the person needs to seriously reconsider being part of it. Babaloshas and iyaloshas need also to consider a variety of issues when selecting future godchildren; I will address those separately in future essays. For the purposes of this post, I will suggest a waiting period between initiations; this should take care of allowing enough time to examine the progress of any individual and their future contributions to the ilé and to the overall community.
I lead by example. When someone gets the elekes in my ilé, I normally will have known this person for about a year. During this time I will keenly observe their life, attitude, deeds and the development of their character. Once the person receives the elekes, there is a one year waiting period before receiving any further initiation such as Warriors, Olokun or before I refer them to an Awó to consider if there is a need or not to receive Awofakan or Ikofá. It has served me right over and over to have time elapsed between initiations, people who are not worthy of my time and of the energy of my orishas will eventually show their true colors and simply go looking for an initiation mill. I have seen this and later on heard about how things turned out for them. Unfortunately the end stories have not been pretty. This leads me to believe they were not right for the path of Santeria. Had I rushed to accept them and give them kariosha, I would have disservice them and disgraced myself by creating unworthy oloshas who later on went onto drag the religion to the ground by disrespecting fundamentals, but not in my house.
Now, the chief argument I hear from other oloshas with regards to being discriminative is what right we have as oloshas to refuse the potential initiates that the orisha bring to our door. I say we have the right and duty to use our heads and to make choices that go along with our moral and ethical standards. Would you admit a pedophile into your ilé? Would you break bread with drug lords when you know that their illegal business is the culprit for thousands of deaths and the destruction of lives and families? Would you bring other unsavory characters to the sanctity of your temple to be thus polluted? There is where we are going wrong as a religious community. People have stopped discriminating. There are many oloshas who drag their so called crown every day in the mud because they make choices that reflect lack of thinking and discrimination.
Let me take this further, have you heard of the expression “garbage in, garbage out?” Well if you bring to kariosha a person filled with character flaws, guess what you are going to get out? No, it will not be an individual transformed magically into a being of light and perfection. It will be an individual with the same flaws but with new skills and powers that will more than likely be put to the service of misguided morals and in the creation of equally flawed individuals. Not all ashe is created equal. Ashe flows from the depths of each individual’s being and it can be shared like a spark of divine, but with no so divine of a result. I can affirm categorically that the Orishas are not the panacea for society’s evils. If that was the case, I could think of a couple of individuals who are sitting high and mighty leading countries and who are in fact monsters and have created great pain and suffering for their people.
So yes, we have the moral duty to discriminate and to wait, to challenge and to use our God given brain to select the best to be placed at the service of the orisha. After all, we are not the kings and queens of Santeria, we may be crowned, but in fact we are servitors of the Orisha, nothing more and nothing less.
Another argument I have heard in favor of initiating anyone who shows to an ilé’s door with the money and the desire to make kariosha is that the initiation will save them from death, destruction, illness or other sort of apocalyptic chaos. Boohoo to them. I got news for the ones who like to engage in what I call Spiritual Terrorism, or the art of creating terror to move people to be initiated. I don’t believe in most of the so called emergencies that many oloshas like to create or to see in their readings to create panic and make people run like screaming banshees in a blind panic to seek initiations. My response to those who come to me in such state is: Breathe. Once again, time sorts out a great deal of problems, particularly when coupled with the use of our God-given wits. In my experience most of the araye or bad luck we have is caused by our own misguided actions and by character flaws manifesting in our day to day living. We go back to Socrates. The unexamined life is not worth living, it keeps us from achieving our potential as individuals. Find the flaws and fix them, improve upon the condition of the human and bring a better human to kariosha. Offer the best one has to offer and then, truly a wonderful transformation will take place in kariosha, a better human being will emerge from the seven-day ritual, no longer garbage in, garbage out. Examine the life of future initiates carefully, find the chinks in the chain and fix them for God sake!
Let me drive the point even further. When you do an offering to the Orisha, do you:
1. Offer rotten fruit
2. A sick animal
3. Something done with carelessness
4. All of the above
5. None of the above
If you have selected 5, then, why would you bring to Kariosha an individual plagued with moral and ethical flaws? Kariosha is the maximum sacrifice that any human being can do the orishas because it is the way in which we pledge our beings to a life of servitude to the orishas and to our fellow human beings.
We must discriminate. The Orishas are not here to offer one last chance of redemption or salvation to anyone. The Orishas are not here to turn people’s lives around magically. If a person goes to the orisha with these ideas in mind, they are erred and blind. It is our duty to make them see this in black and white. There are no middle grounds and no compromises, at least, not in my ilé, not on my guard.
Time is limited, our lives are finite. It is the task of good oloshas to determine where to invest their time and energy to build a community, to leave a legacy of intelligent, well studied, prepared and devoted godchildren who will in fact continue to build with respect and uphold traditions. These godchildren must not be afraid to look deep into their own being, to recognize where they come from, who they owe respect too and to re-state their course of action to continuously improve upon their character. Many oloshas give lip service to Iwa Pele, very few in fact achieve it or strive to do so.
As I write this essay, I take a few minutes to share my progress with my husband and he reminds me quite wisely that sometimes the Orisha also brings initiates tests to see if we are indeed are upholding traditions, capable of discerning and of making the right choices, not for the now but for the community. The right choice for the now may be to look good and to have lots of godchildren, but how many of those will truly be placed at the true service of the Orisha? How many will stray? There is no way of knowing, but we do increase our chances of being good godparents if we limit the amount of godchildren birthed and focus on the properly raising the ones initiated to be not just oloshas but great oloshas or to the best of their abilities.
In my next post I will elaborate on my ideas on how to place the Internet to the service of the community and not to its detriment. After all, computers and the Internet are part of our existence and here to stay.
Oní Yemayá Achagbá